Holst’s The Planets: BBCSO at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus (women’s voices), Professor Brian Cox, Ben Gernon

Barbican Hall, 29th September 2018

I wasn’t quite sure of what the format would be for this performance of Holst’s The Planets. Maybe a quick intro from our most famous and telegenic physicist, then a work-out for the BBCSO under Guest Conductor Ben Gernon, with a few unspecified other repertoire to be tacked on. What I hadn’t bargained for was a full-on lecture preceding each of the seven movements with state-of-the-art slide-show accompaniment showcasing some of the most famous images of our solar system.

It was therefore a very pleasant surprise. The Hall was packed to the rafters and, this being The Planets with a famous bloke off the telly, there was a far more diverse audience than you normally see at the Barbican or the South Bank. And my, my, did I learn a lot. Although I confess I can’t remember it all. The point is that Prof Cox, with his dulcet Manc tones, his child-like enthusiasm and his preposterous hair-cut is just the man to show us how the latest scientific understanding of our solar system, drawn from all that hard- and soft- ware sent out over the last four decades to examine it, both connects to, and contradicts, the more mystical and conjectural view prevalent in the early C20 when Holst wrote his masterpiece.

Holst, with his attachment to English folk-song and Eastern mysticism, was a curious fellow in some ways. Swedish extraction, frail constitution, mates with Vaughan-Williams, teacher at St Pauls Girls School, as fancy as it gets even then, nice gaff looking over the Thames in Barnes, committed socialist. An interest in theosophy, a right rag-tag of funny ideas as far as I can tell, but which had quite a hold over the Western creative community in the inter-war period.

His music is pretty curious as well. Uncertain tonalities, modal expressions, the kind of counterpoint more typical of medieval forms, irregular and often belting rhythms, ear-catching dissonance. It all tumbled out in The Planets, which itself it as big a subject as you can imagine for programmatic music. No surprise that it was such a success when finally completed in 1917, bolstering his career and reputation, and no surprise it is so popular today. Its best ideas might now appear to be a field full of hackneyed war-horses but, if you step back from the familiar, it still has the power to wow especially, I think, in the slower passages. At the time it was as “modern” as Debussy or Stravinsky, and, like them, its influence on “everyday” classical music now, is inescapable. No Planets, no fantasy film scores.

Holts’s starting point was the elemental character of each of the seven planets which is what lies behind astrology, (connected to this theosophy caper apparently). All b*llocks obviously, even at the time, but Holst believed it. And believing in the power of the planets to influence us did give a starting point for Holst to set out what he saw as important facets of the human condition: War (Mars), Peace (Venus), Messenger (Mercury), Jollity (Jupiter), Old Age (Saturn), Magician (Uranus), Mystic (Neptune), Scoff all you like but this nonsense also meant that, on this night, the exact centenary, Prof Cox could then riff on how far we have come in our understanding of what makes up our solar system, and that more existential question, what other life might be, or have been, out there.

The BBCSO, (with the female voices of the choir for the final wordless chorus in Neptune) was on top form and threw itself into the hyped-up interpretation under Ben Gerson. With the movements broken up by Prof Cox’s oration it was important to establish momentum in each of the movements tout suite as it were. After all the whole piece clocks in at just under an hour with only Saturn and Venus getting anywhere near the 10 minute mark. Easy enough to quickly stake your claim on the thunderous toccata of Mars, (here claimed as a wider critique of industrial capitalism and not just the horror of mechanised warfare), the carnival scherzo of Jupiter, the bitonal dance of Mercury or the sardonic fantasy of Uranus. I have to say though that the BBCSO was actually most convincing in the nagging processional of Saturn and the endless hush of Neptune which take more time to overawe.

All up a splendid idea. Of course individually the images, the music and the lecture might have had more lasting impact, but put them all together and a deeper impression was created. It would be nice if we humans could keep our sh*t together long enough to find out if we are not alone.

The Cardinal’s Musick at Wigmore Hall review ****

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The Cardinal’s Musick, Andrew Carwood (director)

Wigmore Hall, 27th September 2018

  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – Motet Tu es Petrus, Missa Tu es Petrus, Gregorian Chant, Magnus Sanctus Paulus a 8
  • Giovanni Bassano – O Rex gloriae
  • Jacob Handl – Sanctus Bartholomeus
  • Thomas Crecquillon – Andreas Christi famulus
  • Tomás Luis De Victoria – Vidi speciosam
  • Francisco Guerrero – Virgo prudentissima
  • Sebastián de Vivanco – Magnificat octavi toni

More people should hand themselves over to the musicianship and scholarship of the best of British Renaissance vocal ensembles such as The Cardinal’s Musick or The Tallis Scholars or The Sixteen. Or, on those rarer occasions, when the best of their European cousins pop over. (Let us hope that isn’t made prohibitively difficult by the clusterf*ck that is Brexit though I suspect nothing would give greater pleasure to the never-happy social conservatives than watching us metropolitan liberals lose the opportunity to listen to such poncey, suspect singing).

Surely, it is impossible not to like complex polyphony sung by experts. Of course you could invest some time into learning about the composers of this ravishing music and the context in which it was created. As the canon of Renaissance music has expanded so too has our knowledge about those who created it, though biographical details are normally scant. Some vague-ish birth and death dates, a list of where they trained and what positions they held and what patrons they, (and by implication we), need to be grateful to. More often than not there is some detail in the careers of the most renowned of these men, (women got more of a look in in Medieval music and in the early Baroque, as we are now, thankfully, discovering), which marks them out as tricky in some way. Often over what they got paid. You would think the aristos and the Church would have been happy to pay up for art of this quality. Clearly not.

There are now a wealth of recordings of the (largely) French, Flemish, English, Italian and Spanish masters and the repertoire is still expanding. However, given the relatively limited number of performances and performers it is still likely that the casual listener/attendee, like yours truly, will encounter something new at every concert. The scholars and musicologists that lead the way still have plenty to play with I gather, so the sense of exploration and novelty that pervades Renaissance music performance, even though we are now well into the sixth decade of “rediscovery” since the first ensembles set out, isn’t about to end. I assume devoting your life to this sort of caper isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I hope that the economic ecosystem is robust enough to underpin such vocation.

You could also seek to understand when, why and how these pieces were performed. I guess having some sort of faith would be a good starting point for grasping the meaning of the religious works, but I also think it is perfectly possible for the irreligious to take something from the words and purposes of the texts. Even if all the rules of Christian liturgy and its founding myths remain a bit fuzzy you will certainly learn a lot about the political, religious and social contexts in which this works were created.

You might arm yourself too with as much knowledge as you can about the musical forms and structures which define this music. Sacred and secular, masses and motets, madrigals, modal and tonal, the way in which the vocal parts are put together, parody, imitation, suspensions, homophony, antiphony, plainsong, cantus firmus, dissonance, dyadic counterpoint. I can’t say I am there yet but some of the terminology is staring to fall into place. And remember folks the Tourist is, by virtue of a grotesquely painful singing voice, unable to perform, a source of eternal shame, and, by dint of what his music teacher at school was wont to call “tone deafness”, in a time before such educational derogation was outlawed, an utter inability to “read” notes on a page, only a consumer, and not a producer, of music. At the time I gloried in Mr Vaughan-Williams’, (I kid you not, but I am pretty sure he was no relation), disapproval. Now I really wish I had listened to him. Mind you I still take pride in being booted out of RE on a couple of occasions, for, and I swear this is no malleably manufactured memory, arguing with the teacher whose name I forget about the existence of God. Calling me a “long-haired jessy”, however apt, only served to fuel my nascent atheism I am afraid.

Anyway, you could learn all you can about this glorious music. Or you could, as frankly I normally do, let it wash over, and through, you. You know the thing where you forget about everything but the now, mind empties, body relaxes, free of the grinding anxiety of what has happened or what might be about to happen? To get it you can, I suppose, teach yourself, or get some-one to teach you, some sort of mindfulness mumbo-jumbo. Or you could just listen to Palestrina or Victoria. I promise it will work. After all it was written for exactly that purpose. To lose yourself in devotion. So piggy-back off that and get yourself along to one of these concerts. Close your eyes and let the voices take over.

Here endeth the lesson.

 

Britten’s Spring Symphony from the LSO at the Barbican review ***

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LSO, LSO Chorus, Tiffin Choirs, Sir Simon Rattle, Philip Cobb (trumpet), Gabor Tarkovi (trumpet), Elizabeth Watts, (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor)

Barbican Hall, 17th September 2018

  • Harrison Birtwhistle – Donum Simoni MMXVIII
  • Gustav Holst – Egdon Heath
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage – Dispelling the Fears
  • Benjamin Britten – Spring Symphony

Now here was an object lesson in not doing one’s homework. Benjamin Britten’s music was my first introduction to the classical world and remains one of my all time fave composers, (mind you the list is pretty short). However, I am not persuaded by all of his work, including, I remembered just that tiniest bit too late, the Spring Symphony. So always check that the piece you think you are going to hear is exactly that at the time of booking and always, especially if it is a work of substance as here, listen to it before attending. Both rules ignored on this occasion in the most spectacularly cavalier fashion.

Still it was the LSO. Under the baton of Sir Simon with the LSO Chorus and the combined Tiffin Choirs, Girls’, Boys’ and Children’s. (BD sadly, saddled with tone deaf parents, was never a contender for the first of these crews). And, in the Spring Symphony, three excellent soloists, two of who I knew, Alice Coote and Elizabeth Watts, and one only by reputation, Allan Clayton. All the voices were superb, there are some tricky vocal pyrotechnics required in certain of the poetic settings, and the logistical challenges of getting everyone on stage (or just in front) were adroitly handled. At points the Barbican Hall stage was stuffed to the gills. Sir Simon really does need that bigger stage.

The Spring Symphony was commissioned by Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who had earlier sponsored BB’s breakthrough Peter Grimes. As so often, writing it took a lot out of BB, three years from start to finish, on and off. He originally intended to set Latin texts against a symphonic backdrop but, as was BB’s wont, he persuaded himself that English poetry would be bettered suited. When BB sets canonic English poetry on a smaller scale the results can be astonishing, Les Illuminations, the Serenade, the Nocturne, Phaedra and, I reckon, the Cantata misericordium. And obviously the War Requiem shows he was a dab hand with large scale forces. But the Spring Symphony doesn’t quite hang together IMHO, choruses and orchestra sometimes at odds with each other.

It is (just about) discernibly a symphonic structure, a la Mahler, the first part made up of five sections (Spenser, Nashe, Peele, Clare and Milton, with various ideas laid out, the second a slow movement with three settings (Herrick, Vaughan and Auden), the third a scherzo again with three poems (Barnfield, Peele and Blake) set to music and the rousing finale, setting Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s Elizabethan paean to the month of May, London, to thee I do present. There is lots of invention, texture and tone throughout, BB avoids throwing the kitchen sink at everything, with many passages of light orchestration, and percussion, harp, certain woodwind and brass, especially trumpets, (a theme throughout the programme), all get a good look in. Since all the poems reference Spring, doh, there are plenty of Spring-ey tunes, but also some darker material; this was a message of hope in the aftermath of War but BB recognised not all was rosy in the European garden. It just isn’t an entirely satisfying whole for me.

Sir Simon has always been a dab hand with BB, even from his days with the CBSO, though this was at the more portentious end of his interpretative spectrum. Still everyone really does seem to be having fun at the LSO and the Chorus now that he as at the helm. So maybe I need to cheer up, raise my game and work a bit harder on this particular piece.

The concert opened with a new brass fanfare from Sir Harrison Birtwhistle, a gift to Sir Simon. It was, literally a blast, with a laugh at the end from the sole tuba. This was followed by an excellent reading of Holst’s Egdon Heath. I have always liked Old Gustav’s second most famous orchestral piece after you know what, (which the BBCSO is trotting out soon accompanied by Prof Brian Cox – interesting). That heady mix of Englishness, Ravellian orchestration and a hint of Eastern mysticism draws you in but it takes a conductor of Sir Simon’s insight to really persuade. It is a bit scary, even from the off, with the growling double basses, I for one wouldn’t want to go anywhere near Hardy’s heath based on this music. An elusive string melody is set alongside a sad processional in the brass and some meandering oboe. It never really lands anywhere despite the echoes of a dance, a simple stepwise, siciliano, and it can appear to go on a bit. Not here though.

Dispelling the Fears written by Mark-Antony Turnage in 1995 creates an atmosphere of urban, rather than rural, unease, led by the two trumpets of the LSO’s principal Philip Cobb and the Berlin Philhamonic’s Gabor Tarkovi. The two played pretty close together for much of the piece, creating some stunning harmonies, especially lower down the register, against the usual MAT cloth of Stravinsky, jazz, a whiff of blues, some earlyish Schoenberg. It is quite furtive, never really breaking out, with constant dissonance emerging from clashing semi-tones. There are a few passages of relative peace but mostly it prods and pokes. Like most of MAT’s work it really works though you are not always initially sure why.

So there we go. The LSO and Sir Simon once again showing off the Best of British. With the slight caveat that this may not actually be the best of the best British composer (with apologies to Purcell and Byrd).

The Second Violinist at the Barbican review ***

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The Second Violinist

Barbican Theatre 7th September 2018

Ok so I bought a ticket here on a bit of a whim and because it garnered some awards on its premiere in Ireland. Now I know from past experience that the playwright Enda Walsh is not a man who likes to give audiences an easy night out. Disco Pigs is a belter of a play (and film) but, in trying to unravel the darker psychology and psychoses of the everyday, he sounds to me like the sort of dramatist who can be guilty of putting himself above the audience. All well and good if you like that kind of modern Expressionism but if it fails to connect what’s the point.

Still YOLO. What I hadn’t bargained for is just how good a composer Donnacha Dennehy is. This has all the trappings of a chamber opera. Except that there is a fair bit of spoken word, long periods of neither speech nor singing, though plenty to attract the eye and a main character who never opens his mouth. Which means the score has a lot of work to do and doesn’t always precisely articulate with the drama. But it is a fabulous score. Strains of post-minimalism (he studied with Louis Andriessen) with lots of sustained strings, micro-tonality galore, overtones, buckets of dramatic orchestration, hefty percussive rhythms, electronics, nods to Irish folk heritage, odd harmonies. As a rule of thumb if contemporary classical music grabs me by the throat on first listen for me there is something worth investigating. If there is no connection it can be safely discarded. No idea why or what lies behind that decision but this chap is definitely going to have to be listened to.

Now as for the play/drama/libretto I am less sure. Martin (Aaron Monaghan), emerging from the pit, is a violinist currently rehearsing (badly) a chamber opera with an unhealthy interest in bad-boy Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance prince and composer who mastered dissonance (please listen) but was a bit unhinged to say the least. (there he is above). Martin is not a happy bunny it seems and there is plenty of evidence in his drinking, movement, his calls, game-playing and his digital footprint to show it. But he doesn’t show us directly. Instead we get a drunken night in from Matthew (Benedict Nelson), wife Hannah (Maire Flavin) and her friend Amy (Sharon Carty) who Matthew makes a move on. It doesn’t end well. Presumably this is an acting out of the events that got Martin into the pickle he is in. Or maybe they are the neighbours from hell that Martin really doesn’t need. At the end, in a wood, Martin meets Scarlett (Kimani Arthur) a Tinder chum. Oh and there is a chorus to vocalise some things and to shuffle across the stage.

Though frankly I didn’t really have a clue what was going on. For someone who was effectively a mime artist Aaron Monaghan, apart from some suspect writhing, caught Martin’s dissolution brilliantly. The three singers were crystal clear though their texts were prosaic. The set (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman), video (Jack Phelan) and sound (David Sheppard and Helen Atkinson), all seemed to have a lot to say. I just don’t really know what they were saying. If it was just the breakdown of a life then I suppose it delivered but since I couldn’t find a way in I couldn’t really care. Maybe Martin was looking for beauty in an ugly world, a creative mind that is constantly disappointing himself, (this seems to be what Enda Walsh is driving at in the programme), but any meaning was too impenetrable for me. Past, present and, maybe, future frustratingly elided.

Plenty to look at and a ravishing score but as a work of drama … hmmm. No matter. The score, which really did make the link back to Gesualdo, and the playing of Crash Ensemble under conductor Ryan McAdams alone was enough.

Greek at the Arcola Theatre review *****

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Greek

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 13th August 2018

It is a shame Steven Berkoff’s plays don’t get performed more often. They do, like the stage, film and TV villains he has memorably played, (there he is above doing the menacing thing), sometimes lapse into “in yer face” cliche, but at their best they are thrilling theatre. The verse plays, notably East, West and Decadence, are the most exciting, and Greek, which transports Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to East End London in the 1980s, was inspired. A few nips and tucks to make it fit but moreorless the same brilliant story. I love it, see here for the latest incarnation (Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****). Aristotle thought it was the greatest story ever told and he, being the cleverest bloke that ever lived, knew a thing or two.

More inspired still though was when young Essex lad. Mark-Anthony Turnage, just 28, announced himself to the world with an opera version of Berkoff’s already “musical” play. His mentor Hans Werner Henze suggested the Munich Biennale commission him, and Jonathan Moore helped him with the libretto and directed the premiere. And Mr Moore, no less, was back to direct this production. I was lucky enough to see the first revival in 1990 at the ENO and, I tell you, it blew my socks off. I knew it was possible for opera to be the best of art forms when I was a young’un but I had also been disappointed by some allegedly top notch productions of classics by the likes of Verdi, Puccini and, even, God forgive me, Wagner. I was bored witless by much of this nonsense. But Greek, as one of the first contemporary operas I saw, made me realise that it is the theatre that matters and not the singing. Not saying that when the singing, music and drama all come together I can’t be moved by “classic” opera, especially Mozart and Monteverdi, just that it is a lot easier when the stories stack up and mean something to me and the music isn’t just a bunch of whistling tunes all loosely stitched together.

Of course some buffs might not accept that Greek is an opera at all, more musical theatre in the manner of Brecht and Weill at their best. I see their point. Indeed M-AT, probably more to wind us all up, termed it an anti-opera. Anyway who cares. Greek was a punch in the gut and food for the brain first time round for sure. Mr Turnage, with his rock and jazz inflections, and his adoration of Stravinsky especially, and the likes of Britten and Berg, as well as teacher Oliver Knussen, knows how to compose for the theatre. I knew nothing about the source of his latest outing Coraline (Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****) so had no baggage and, whilst if might not be up to Greek and to his version of The Silver Tassie, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

No need to trot you through the story here in detail I assume. By having the lead, here named Eddie, living a life of frustration in Thatcher’s Britain, Berkoff and Turnage have a contemporary alternative for the plague afflicting Thebes. Mr Moore wisely sticks with the 1980s, no need to invoke “Austerity/Brexit” Britain, that would be crass, which designer Baska Wesolowska, through set and multiple costume changes, neatly evokes. Class relations, cultural impoverishment, addiction, the patriarchy, hopelessness are all revealed but never bog down the story.

The differences between “foundling” Eddy and his heavy drinking Mum and Dad, and Sister, are highlighted by their over the top, “gor-blimey, Eastender, chav, working class” dialogue (no arias here folks) and movements. Eddy is angry and frustrated with them so, after having his fortune told, understandably f*cks off to meet, then marry Wife/real Mum, after an ill-fated altercation with her first hubby in a caff. There’s a fair bit of cursing and violence and the still marvellous riot, Sphinx and “mad” scenes, where M-AT’s brilliantly percussive score is at its best. It is funny and aggressive by turns, is deliberately cartoonish, has some great tunes and musical, (and music-hall), echoes and it belts through the story. And there’s a twist as you might have guessed.

Edmund Danon was a perfect Eddy if you ask me. M-AT asks for a high baritone and that is what Mr Danon provides. Every word was clear as a bell and boy did he get round the Arcola space. As did baritone Richard Morrison as Dad (as well as the, in so many ways, unfortunate Cafe owner and the Police Chief). For choice I preferred the mezzo voice of Laura Woods as Wife, as well as sister Doreen, Sphinx I and Waitress I, over the purer soprano of Philippa Boyle as Mum, Sphinx II and Waitress II.

Greek is now a staple of the operatic circuit as it can reliably pull in younger punters to even the grandest of opera houses, (the ROH got on the bandwagon in 2011). Its physicality, irreverence, punky aesthetic and social commentary can appear a little quaint now, especially if it is “over-produced” in a big space. Which, once again shows why Grimeborn, and the Arcola, is the perfect setting for works like this. With the Kantanti Ensemble, founded by conductor Lee Reynolds to showcase the best young musicians in the South East, under the baton of Tim Anderson, by turns belting out, and reining in, the score, the toes of the audience at risk of crushing from the four performers bounding around the Arcola main stage, and with the original director in charge, this production stripped Greek back to where is should be. Another Grimeborn triumph.

I genuinely urge you to try and see this once in your life. Especially if you think opera is for w*ankers. You will be blown away without any need to reassess that, largely reasonable, preconception.

The Rape of Lucretia at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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The Rape of Lucretia

Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre, 1st August 2018

The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.

The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent),  and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.

As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.

Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where),  and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.

How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.

Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.

I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.

The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.

The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.

 

 

The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****

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The Turn of the Screw

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, ENO, 29th June 2018

Benjamin Britten. The Turn of the Screw. Members of the ENO Orchestra conducted by up and coming talent Toby Purser. Timothy Sheader directing. A Soutra Gilmour set. At the Open Air Theatre. On a beautiful late June evening. In the company of the SO, (who loves her Henry James and surprised herself by enjoying Deborah Warner’s staging of Death in Venice in 2013 at the ENO), BUD and KCK. Of course I was going to love this.

One of the aims here was to extend young BUD’s operatic education beyond Mozart. As he remarked here, not a lot of tunes.. Not sure I agree but there is no doubt in my mind that Britten’s music became darker through time, cleverer, from an already very high base, more progressive and less conservative, whilst never embracing the fearsome avant-garde, and richer, even as textures got sparser. The tonality is tempered with lots of (lovely)  dissonance.

I think TTOTS occupies a key place in the development of all of Britten’s art. It was composed in 1954, just after Gloriana, and three years after Billy Budd. In the same year Britten composed his Canticle No III, Still Falls the Rain for tenor piano and, Britten’s favourite, horn. This is recognisably BB, like a trip-hop version of the Serenade Op 31, but this, and the Winter Words song cycle from 1953, seem more melancholic than the warmer equivalents before the war. Britten himself said that his music was forever changed by the WWII, as was true for pretty much all Western art, notably by a visit to Belsen, but I don’t think this really becomes apparent until the mid 1950’s.

Anyway TTOTS is definitely an example of the “less is more” BB where surface effect is toned down a little, (though not jettisoned entirely, there are plenty of ravishing musical ideas here), in the service of greater structural and emotional depth. And structurally this is a score of genius as a tightly wound serial “screw” theme and set of 15 variations built on a different semitone, opens each scene, ratcheting up the tension. So, you see BUD, there is a “tune”, you just hear it in a different way.

Which I think is why it is such an effective piece of musical theatre, an opinion with which BUD heartily conferred. TTOTS is apparently BB’s most performed opera. And probably the most performed opera in English. And, after your man Puccini, probably the most performed opera from the C20. Certainly the most performed of those operas written since the war. In part this reflects its chamber structure. With just 13 instrumentalists and a cast of 7, this is no big budget affair. As was intended. However I also think it reflects near perfect synthesis of story, libretto and music. All three offer a sufficient challenge to an audience but in no way is this intimidating. It always takes a bit of time to get swept up into a Britten opera, but swept up you will be, even if it isn’t the massive, warming, rush of Mozart.

In retrospect it was pretty much a nailed on certainty that BB and Myfanwy Piper would alight on Henry James’s novella. BB, and his various librettists, always started with an artistic inspiration. Usually the story revolved around an “outsider” estranged from the society around him. There’s usually some sort of spiritual dimension. And, nailed on, there will be some sort of uneasy “corruption of the innocent” theme. TTOTS has all of the requisite elements in spades. Better than this though is the ambiguity embedded in the story. What really happened at Bly? What was, or is, the nature of the relationship between Miles and Flora, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? Who, and what, can we see? Who, and what, do the characters really see? After all only the Governess apparently sees the ghosts in HJ’s original. Is this all in the Governess’s mind then? How are we being manipulated? Strange to think then that the story came to HJ via none other than the future Archbishop of Canterbury in 1895.

Myfanwy Piper’s text reads like a poetic, musical impression of Henry James’s book but it picks its highpoint carefully. On to this BB’s score is perfectly stitched. In the book, told through the first person narrative of the Governess, it is up to you to imagine what happens. In my estimation, and those way smarter than me, its psychological depth and disturbing themes, take it beyond your bog standard gothic ghost story. In the innumerable film and TV versions, the ghosts can be made to seem like the extensions of everyday reality that HJ intended (I think), thanks to the trickery of the camera, but you all get one view, one take on the story. In a version for stage as here, (or notably The Innocents or the 2013 Almeida take), Quint and the Governess are undeniably corporeal, (any design team which could escape that mortal fact would get my money, no question), especially if they are going to sing, and the children are going to sing to them, and scenes unfold where the Governess is not present. So the mystery and ambivalence has to come from the music. And I cannot imagine anyone better than Britten at facilitating this.

But BB and MP take things a lot further. Take Miles’s famous Malo song that is repeated by the Governess at the end. Haunting for sure with viola, horn and harp. Malo in Latin could either mean “bad”, “to prefer” or an apple, symbol of innocence. “I would rather be… in an apple tree … than a naughty boy … in adversity”. The Latin words recited in the lesson prior to this contain all sorts of sexual references. Miles wanting “his own kind” and reflecting on his “queer life”. Mrs Gross’s line about Quint being “free with everyone” allowed to linger in the Regent’s Park air. Blimey. This is how the opera adds a new dimension contrasting the order and convention that the Governess clings to with the liberty that Quint offers whilst not seeking to mask the implication of abuse.

So, as you can see, I am a fan of this opera. What about the production then. Sandra Gilmour has imagined the remote country house of Bly as a large, dilapidated conservatory fronted by overgrown grass and a jetty leading to the “lake” and into the audience. It was amazing. Timothy Sheader, after a decade at Regents Park, now knows exactly how to use the unique space to best effect. TTOFTS was pushed out to an 8pm start to ensure sunset and early twilight matched the change in dramatic mood in the story and provided a perfect backdrop for lighting designer Jon Clark to show off his skills. Quint and Jessel make entrances from within the audience. Even the parakeets flew over on cue, “the birds fly home to these great trees”, at our performance. The debacle of last years Tale of Two Cities is entirely forgiven. The pacing was sublime and the musicianship top notch, especially, the viola of Rebecca Chambers, the clarinet of Barnaby Robson, the horn of John Thurgood and the harp of Alison Martin. Putting the orchestra inside the conservatory, behind a panel of ancient glass, thus lending them a ghostly quality, was a genius touch.

On this evening ENO Harewood Artists Elgan Llyr Thomas played Peter Quint with William Morgan taking the Prologue. Mr Thomas’s tenor voice is clear and direct, through the melismas especially, and fitted the space. I was a little less sure about his wig and beard combo. Anita Watson was a suitably unhinged Governess, for me she was convinced this was really happening, and Elin Pritchard a very disturbing, steampunky Miss Jessel. Janis Kelly, who has in her time played Flora. Miss Jessel and the Governess, now played a protective Mrs Gross. Daniel Alexander Sidhorn’s precociousness made for an arresting Miles though I have to say Elen Wilmer’s Flora was, for me, the more impressive voice. As an actor though Master Sidhorn is the real deal. Simultaneously vulnerable and malign.

Indeed Elen matched the elder Elin in look and movement creating a “bond” between Flora and Miss Jessel as disturbing in its way as that between Miles and Quint, an unexpected bonus. Mind you when Miles dons his purple shirt to match Quint’s and when he takes over from Quint on the piano, (young Sidhorn is either a mighty fine  pianist or an even better “piano mimer”), the audience was bolt upright in their collective seats. And, on top of all of this, Mr Sheader really messed with our heads with a provocatively erotic scene as the Governess, “lost in my labyrinth”, asleep, is joined silently by Quint and Miss Jessel, or more specifically her hair, with Flora’s symbolic dolly and with Miles’s symbolic jack-in-the-box. Oh and did I say Miss Jessel is pregnant here.

One final thing. It’s outside. Which means a little technology is required to keep the volume stable as it were for both ensemble and singers. Which meant every word, with a couple of exceptions when Anita Watson’s soprano heads off to the higher registers, was crystal clear. Didn’t stop me consulting the libretto on occasion but what it did mean is that, for maybe the first time ever, I could savour every word of the libretto, to set alongside this stunning score and this tremendous production. This is what theatre, and opera, should all be about.